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Fed up

How Orlando's homeless-service agencies have failed to solve the problem

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That criticism seems like it would be more apt if it were directed toward the organizations with the money, the power and the authority to combat homelessness – such as the city of Orlando, Orange County, the major homeless agencies and the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness. What have they done to alleviate homelessness in Orlando? The answer is, sadly, not all that much.

Despite the fact that the city’s four largest homeless-services organizations – the Salvation Army, the Christian Service Center for Central Florida, the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida and the Orlando Union Rescue Mission – have combined budgets of more than $10 million, some of the richest and most powerful people on their boards and access to more resources to help the homeless than any other activist group in town, Central Florida’s estimated homeless population holds steady at just over 10,000 individuals. These groups have little to show for their combined decades of experience with those living on the streets.

Right now, all eyes (and scrutiny) are on the dispute between Food Not Bombs and the city, but that’s just a distraction from the larger issue: that the system in place to help the homeless in Orlando is broken.

Usually, the longevity of an organization can be considered a measure of its success. But for the agencies battling homelessness, it can also be considered a measure of impotence – the oldest of Orlando’s agencies, the Salvation Army, has been around for 91 years; the youngest, the Coalition, has been around for nearly 25 years. Homelessness, despite the decades put in by organizations such as these, is not waning.

That can partially be blamed on the fact that most agencies are “bailing the leaking boat of homelessness,” according to the White House’s former “homeless czar” Philip Mangano, who says the approach to homelessness in too many agencies is heavy on services and light on housing. “If good intentions, well-meaning programs and humanitarian gestures could end homelessness,” Mangano says, “it would have been history decades ago.”

The first federal task force on homelessness was formed in 1983, but it was only after two decades of failed outreach efforts, elaborate treatment regimens and ineffective transitional programs that policy makers realized that the cure to homelessness starts, not ends, with housing. “If you ask a homeless person what they want, they never ask for a pill, a program, a protocol or a series of steps,” Mangano says. “Homeless people ask for one thing: a place to live.”

The “Housing First” model of dealing with homelessness, which emphasizes getting people into stable homes rather than moving them through homeless shelters and transitional housing programs, was embraced by the Obama administration last year. The idea originated in New York City in 1992 after a clinical psychologist named Sam Tsemberis noticed that many of the homeless he brought to emergency rooms would reappear on the streets less than a month after being admitted to the hospital. Upon speaking at length with homeless individuals, Tsemberis found a “unanimous” desire for simply a place to stay. “The erroneous assumption was that it was something about their mental illness and addiction that caused their homelessness,” Tsemberis says. “But it wasn’t. It was an income problem.”

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